LOS ANGELES - In a year in which nearly every make made its customers happier, Saturn and the European makes made customers the happiest of all.
Saturn, which shared the title with Lexus last year, finished on top of the 1997 Sales Satisfaction Study from J.D. Power and Associates.
Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, BMW, Audi, Jaguar and Land Rover all posted strong gains to rank among the top 10.
The industry bounced back, too. The average score on the index was 128, a gain of 9 points. In 1996, the industry average dropped for the first time in the survey's 10-year history.
Power attributed the Europeans' gains to better-trained sales forces with stronger communications skills.
Japanese luxury marques Lexus and Infiniti also continued to rank near the top. But Japanese volume makes continued to languish below the industry average. Asian makes posted the highest percentage increases.
Better salesperson communication, the convenience of the transaction process and the confidence of better quality vehicles were the ideas that translated into higher sales satisfaction, according to the survey.
'Customers are looking for guidance from their salesperson, rather than a time-consuming deal,' said Loretta Seymour, director of automotive sales research at J.D. Power.
Salespeople should be knowledgeable about competitive models, warranty coverage, service requirements, financing options and product features, Seymour said.
Sales satisfaction also increased with the realization that to the customer, time is money, J.D. Power says. Satisfaction generally declines as more time is spent on the transaction. Yet, a more relaxed negotiation process also is necessary to make the customer happy. If a dealer cannot provide that atmosphere, brokers and online buying services can.
Nearly 25 percent of all new-vehicle buyers said they were 'disappointed' with their purchase experience, according to J.D. Power.
Customers were more satisfied when they leased rather than bought a car - perhaps because salespeople and consumers have become more comfortable with the no-haggle nature of leasing, Power said.
To arrive at its scores, J.D. Power measured salesperson performance (which accounted for 45 percent of the total score), initial product condition (30 percent) and delivery activities (25 percent). About 45,000 new-vehicle owners were surveyed.